Dogs Trust: getting human and canine attention in town.
Dogs Trust: getting human and canine attention in town.
As seen today on the rear wall of a house in the Dutch Quarter, backing on to Colchester Castle Park, Essex. A feast for the eyes and food for thought.
My GP (general practitioner, or family doctor) is based at Durlston House, or number 18 North Hill, Colchester. I have a long connection to North Hill, perhaps longer than I realise, specifically number 47 with its key place in my personal history.
Number 18 lies on the east side of North Hill and has its own stories to tell, of course. It was given Grade II listed status in 1950 – recognising its late 16th-century structure with Georgian facade and its 18th-century oriel window over the central doorcase. Yet earlier, in the 19th-century, Roman tessellated paving and medieval walling had been discovered in the back garden.
There are exposed wooden beams throughout the house, perhaps the most eye-catching of which are in the north room downstairs, now the surgery waiting room. Here, the walls are covered with public health notices, an electronic screen flashes the names of patients, doctors, and rooms, and the obligatory leisure magazines sit, neglected, on a corner table.
If those waiting (sometimes) patiently only look up to the beams, they can see there painted inscriptions. The medical practice has thoughtfully transcribed, printed out and framed them as a poster for the patient to read and make of what they will. Here, as so often in life (and medicine), there is no explanation.
It’s day three of a big freeze here in the UK. In my part of East Anglia, the east wind is currently taking the temperature down to – 12 Celsius and turning the back garden into an unruly snow globe. Powdery snowballs from the trees, dodged by puffed up birds, mingle with fresh snowfall. I filled the bird feeder in the apple tree this morning, for the blue tits (which speed feed before the resident robin can object) and covered the garden table with the remaining seeds for larger birds. Here, we aren’t used to these temperatures even at this time of year, and nor is the wildlife. I hold on to my love of the peace and light the snow bring. I’m hopeful for Spring.
Last night, I left work with a colleague – we both walk to work and when we work together our paths cross awhile. We chatted about Spring – it was a mild evening for January and the birdsong was loud, there was an air of hope. As we do, we went our separate ways just outside the Roman walls marking the boundary of old Colchester. As he headed due south, up Balkerne Hill, I headed due north to cross the River Colne at the foot of North Hill. I stood on North Bridge and took this view as it took me. The warmth of home reflected on the river as I reflected on similarities with Hopper and Van Eyck and the intimacy of painted detail. Lighter nights are coming on, but real home comfort is now.
Walking to work along the River Colne in the first frost of this winter, with the ghost of the moon and a reflective swan.
New life springs from the Roman wall on Balkerne Hill, Colchester. This section of the town's old fortifications is currently undergoing restoration. In its time it has, of course, seen many more aggressive occupants. In the eleven-week Siege of Colchester in 1648, the Parliamentarians damaged the wall in their, ultimately successful, bid to oust the Royalist troops during the English Civil War. It was a period which caused great suffering to the starved, besieged locals. Rumor has it that this was the origin of Humpty Dumpty, the English nursery rhyme: a one-eyed gunner had inflicted many casualties on the Parliamentarians from the tower of St Mary's church, a two-minute walk from where this photograph was taken, before he and the tower were laid low by cannon fire. Whatever his provenance, Humpty Dumpty certainly helps other Colcestrian favourites, Old King Cole, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and the Teletubbies in keeping our stories alive.
Perseverance. It all started with a Sunday sermon at St Leonard’s Church in Lexden, Colchester a while ago and, from there, the theme grew on me.
Home, in Colchester, whenever I walk past Number 47, I give a grateful nod to my history. If I stroll on from there, through The Dutch Quarter, it’s all the better to reflect on my Flemish ancestors, religious refugees, who settled there in the sixteenth-century. They persevered, surviving persecution and forced migration, to make Colchester one of the leading cloth-producing towns in England, and give their ancestors an enduring bond with this place.
From time to time on my stroll, the door to St Martin’s church in the Dutch Quarter is ajar when I pass, with a large white sign sellotaped to it, saying, in clear, black font: OPEN. COME IN. Impolite not to, wouldn’t you say? By the way, there’s also a smaller, faded, sign on the gate prohibiting alcohol in the graveyard (it is in Essex, after all). I enjoy being the only visitor, when there is no attendant, so we (the building and I) can be alone together. For me, the perfect visit. My Flemish ancestors may well have worshipped there, though possibly spoilt for choice, as St Martin’s was one of eight churches in the town centre (of which six have survived to the present day) at the time.
An object lesson in perseverance, the building stands over a Roman street and aligns perfectly with a Saxon one. So, it may be late Saxon in origin, as it fits with that period’s replanning of the town. The Normans are easier to find here, they built the tower. The materials used also have their own story; flint rubble, Roman brick, Norman tile. Most of the structure we can see today took shape in the fourteenth-century. Later on, The English Civil War had Colchester under siege and, in 1648, the Norman tower was damaged (and never repaired). A history of the town written 300 years later, describes the building as in a ruinous condition and not fit for services.
Not until the late nineteenth-century was extensive restoration work carried out, when pre-Reformation wall paintings and wood carvings were discovered (including The Green Man, shown in my photograph). The very paint used to obscure those forbidden images (in line with then-new theological practice) had, thankfully,preserved them. However, for the next hundred years, the church remained neglected and little used, until 1996 when The Churches Conservation Trust took over its care. From time to time, theatre performances are held there, and from time to time, its door is open to the public. Through time, it perseveres.